Horses Destined for Slaughter

One of the most controversial topics involving equines in the United States concerns sending horses to slaughter. Many horse owners and even non-owners are miles apart when this issue arises. There are those who take an extreme stance—that humans should not eat the flesh of any animal. A discussion on that subject is not our objective. On the other side of the scale are those who believe that horse meat is edible food just like beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. In the middle are persons who like a good beef steak, a fried pork chop, a grilled lamb chop, or roasted chicken but draw the line at consuming horse meat. The horse, they maintain, is a companion animal and should be exempt from the culinary category.

For the most part, individuals with the above viewpoint would reside in the United States. Many Europeans and Orientals have grown up eating horse meat and continue to do so today. To them, the horse is just another animal that provides sustenance in a healthy way. After all, horse meat is very lean and nutritious—almost completely devoid of fat and harmful cholesterol.

Perhaps geography has something to do with people’s feelings on the issue. Some European countries where horse meat is consumed are smaller than a number of American states. While U.S. residents have the luxury of space, many Europeans do not. In many countries, human population is so dense that there is no room for the backyard horse. Riding is confined to central stables. As a result, one could surmise, many Europeans did not develop the same love affair with the horse that has been in vogue in the United States for decades, dating back to when the horse moved from draft animal to recreational status.

Whatever the case, it is a fact that there is virtually no market for horse meat in the United States, while there is strong demand throughout Europe and in parts of the Orient. In those countries, colorful ads encourage potential customers to try quality, imported U.S. horse meat. The ads are similar to those seen in the U.S extolling the virtues of particular beef cuts, the ‘other white meat,’ lamb, or chicken.

Perhaps another aspect in the mental approach involves the increasing distance—mentally and physically—between the average consumer and the product while on the hoof, especially in the form of cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens. Most consumers, one can assume, sort through pre-packaged meat at the supermarket without giving thought to the fact that once this was a calf, pig, sheep, or chicken that walked about on a farm or in a feed lot. In earlier days, there was very little distancing. Families often gathered in the fall for a communal hog slaughter, handling all aspects from the killing and bleeding to packaging and preserving cuts, without commercial help.

In those days, too, there were city meat markets where the customer could walk in, look at a carcass or two, and ask the butcher to provide specific cuts. Today, the corner butcher is an anachronism. Meat wrapped in sterile packages, often prepared to the point where it only needs heating, awaits the supermarket shopper.

While this distancing has occurred between consumer and most edible animals, the same isn’t true with the horse. Movies in this country often depict horses as man’s great companion, and television brings them into our living rooms from the racetrack, rodeo arena, jump course, eventing field, and cutting arena. Cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens are rarely cast in the same light (with the exception of Babe).

There is an ironic twist to supply and demand. The countries that consume the most horse meat do not themselves produce much of the product. The country that consumes perhaps the least, the United States, produces more horses for the human consumption market than any other.

However, we must not assume that horse meat for European and Oriental consumers comes only from the United States. That is not the case at all. South American countries, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand also have a healthy share of the market. However, U.S. horse meat generally is more highly prized because the horses slaughtered in this country usually are in better physical condition than those from some other countries, notably South America.

According to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, from 1995 through 1997, an average of 100,467 equines were slaughtered annually in federally inspected facilities in the United States. In 1996, according to the USDA, the United States exported 38 million pounds of horse, ass, and mule meat, with a value of $64 million. Of the total volume exported in 1996, some 29 million pounds, or 76%, went to Belgium and France. (The American Horse Council estimates that there are 6.9 million horses in the United States.)

At present, there are four U.S. plants that are licensed by the USDA to slaughter horses for human consumption. One is in Fort Worth, Texas, another is in Kaufman, Texas, and one is in North Platte, Nebraska. The fourth is near DeKalb, Ill., but at this writing had at least temporarily closed its doors because of inability to renew a lease.

In addition, there are three slaughter facilities in Canada. One is in Alberta, another in Ontario, and the third in Quebec.

At one time, there were as many as 34 plants in operation in North America. Some of them slaughtered horses for the pet food market only. Then, the market changed. Many of the major pet food manufacturers switched emphasis to beef as the key ingredient in their products and contracted with major beef slaughter plants for byproducts. Many horse slaughter plants, dependent on the pet food market, closed their doors.

The number of plants slaughtering horses for human consumption also is less than it was several years ago, when there were nine in the United States alone.

There is minor disagreement as to why the number has dwindled in North America. Some Canadian slaughter plant officials say the reason is a diminishing European market. Some U.S. plant officials disagree, saying that demand has remained constant, but that competition from other countries has taken a toll.

Of late, other countries have become major players in the horse meat game. In the past, South America in particular was not viewed as serious competition. Although there are a great many horses in South America, there was little capability for shipping refrigerated meat by air. That has changed in recent years, and a number of South American countries are vying for their share of the market.

As part of the research for this story, this writer visited all three U.S. plants that are in operation at this time, as well as the one at Fort Macleod, Alberta.

One thing should be made clear at the outset: A visit to a slaughter plant is not an experience that one seeks for pleasure. However, it should also be made clear that a horse slaughter plant is no different—from an operational point of view—than plants that butcher cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens, with the end result being a packaged product that winds up ready for consumption.

Rendering any animal lifeless is a sudden and violent act. There is no way to prettify it.

As with cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens, the horse’s life ends in one sudden instant, and scant minutes later it is an eviscerated, skinned carcass that has been cut in half and is on its way to a cooler. It is assembly line production.

Much of the controversy concerning the slaughter of horses for human consumption involves transporting the animals. Horror stories have been told of horses being jammed into cattle trucks and kept there for hours, finally winding up at the ultimate destination with a multitude of injuries and suffering severely.

It is likely that this happened, but to state that it happens with frequency today would be highly inaccurate for a number of reasons—the main one being economics.

Horses which go to slaughter for human consumption must pass even more rigorous examinations than cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens before reaching the consumer. The reason this is true stems from rigid rules established and enforced by the European Union (EU). Because European countries are the prime importers, all existing plants must adhere to EU food safety rules. The EU rules are even more stringent than those established by the United States Department of Agriculture. However, the USDA remains the prime on-site regulatory agency at all U.S. slaughter facilities.

In the United States, every equine carcass is examined by a USDA inspector. If it does not meet USDA requirements for quality, the entire carcass winds up in the offal bin, along with intestines and other parts of the anatomy not used for human consumption. This means that such an animal purchased by the plant yields zero return, something that no business can afford.

Even bruising from overcrowding or fighting cuts into the yield. If a carcass shows signs of bruising, the USDA inspector likely would insist that all of the bruised area be removed and discarded.

Actually, the horse is examined by a USDA inspector before it is ever slaughtered. On the day of slaughter, the inspector will examine each animal in the holding pen. Any that do not meet standards are culled at that point and placed in a separate pen. Those horses will be humanely dispatched, but the meat is condemned and must be discarded.

Falling into that category would be animals that have a high fever, central nervous system dysfunction, or signs of infection.

Thus, it is a money-losing proposition for slaughter plants to buy horses which they know will not pass inspection.

Grey horses, which have a predisposition for melanoma, always are a concern when they arrive at a slaughter plant or are presented for purchase. Some openly display tumors, while others appear completely normal until they are eviscerated and examined. Then the affliction is discovered. The end result, either way, is a carcass that is relegated to the offal bin.

The offal is sent by truck to rendering plants, where it is turned into a variety of products, ranging from chicken feed to baby wipes. Horse spleens are used in human cancer research.

The Final Ride

Regulations concerning the transportation of horses to slaughter appear to be on the way. The USDA, through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), has promulgated a set of rules and regulations designed to protect horses which are being transported to slaughter plants. These regulations have been a source of controversy all by themselves, and should be of major concern to owners (see accompanying article beginning on page 40).

The slaughter plants are convinced that the regulations will become law, but are equally convinced that the rules are too narrow in scope to protect horses the way the horse industry thinks that they will, and that the regulations are aimed in the wrong direction. The plant operators believe that the transportation regulations are the first steps being taken as part of an overall effort to close down horse slaughter plants in the United States. That might be an overstatement on their part, but they do make some good points concerning the narrow scope of the proposed regulations and the loopholes that can be used to sidestep them.

Most inhumane treatment of horses being transported occurs, they contend, when the animals are trucked or trailered from sale barn to sale barn as a trader seeks to obtain enough horses to warrant a trip to the slaughter plant. These horses might be loaded at one sale facility, trailered to another in a different area where more horses are bought, and might or might not be unloaded and/or provided with fresh water and hay.

The new regulations, they contend, do not address these problems. They only address the transportation of the horse on its final leg of the trip to slaughter. Thus, the horse could be trucked or trailered many miles, but the federal regulations would not come into effect until it was finally loaded onto a conveyance to go to the slaughter plant itself.

It is unlikely that these abuses occur with the frequency today that they might have 15 years ago. In earlier times, as many as 450,000 horses per year were slaughtered in the United States. Dozens might be auctioned off at a given sale on a given day. Thus, a trader could travel from sale to sale and very soon would have a truckload to ship directly to the slaughter plant. The number of horses sold for slaughter has diminished in recent years, and buyers are more apt to purchase a truckload over a longer period. It is normal for buyers to purchase the horses a few at a time and hold them at their farm or ranch until they have a full load to be shipped to the slaughter plant.

When the slaughter plant makes arrangements for delivery of animals from one point to another, they maintain, efforts are made to keep the horses sound and healthy so that only animals which would meet criteria for human consumption arrive at the plant.

While there likely are abuses when horses are trailered from one sale facility to another, it would be an inept trader who would not regularly feed or water the horses being transported. The value of slaughter horses is figured on a per pound basis. If a horse should lose 100 pounds because of neglect while being transported, it could result in the trader’s losing his entire profit margin on the animal.

The company most involved with transporting horses which are headed for slaughter is Bouvray Exports Calgary LTD, with plants in Alberta and Quebec and feed lots in Shelby, Mont., and Fort Macleod, Alberta. The business is family owned, with the principals being Claude Bouvray, his wife, Louise, and his brother, Alain, who supervises the wholesale outlets from his office in France.

Bouvray Exports is the major player in the game as far as the United States and Canada are concerned. At the Fort Macleod plant, between 240 and 260 horses are slaughtered daily, or up to 1,300 weekly. The largest U.S. plant is Beltex, located in Fort Worth. It will slaughter about 600 horses per week.

More than half of the horses the Bouvray company purchases come from Canada, but a large number also are purchased throughout the United States. At present, says Benny Kropius, plant representative and head buyer for the U.S. market, about 60% of the horses are purchased in Canada and 40% in the United States. A few years ago, he said, those numbers were reversed—60% from the United States and 40% from Canada.

Bouvray has the capacity for feeding more than 15,000 head of horses if all of its feed lots are filled to capacity.

Horses which are kept at the Shelby feed lot are trucked to the Macleod plant when they reach a pre-determined state of fitness. The transportation, for the most part, is via double-decker semi trucks that will be outlawed under the new proposed federal regulations.

Because the trucks will cross the border into Canada, the shippers must adhere to all Canadian equine trucking regulations. Included in those regulations is the requirement that eight inches of space be allowed between any horse’s withers and the roof of the compartment in which it is being transported. All horses must be able to stand on four legs. Any horse which is three-legged lame, the regulations stipulate, will be turned back at the border.

The Canadian regulations are enforced by inspectors who meet the trucks at border crossing stations. Near these stations are loading chutes and holding corrals. At the inspector’s discretion, all of the horses on a truck can be unloaded and examined.

Once the horses are unloaded, examined, and reloaded, the inspector will ‘seal’ the trailer. When the truck arrives at the slaughter plant, the horses must remain on board until another federal inspector removes the seal. The horses then are placed in a holding pen that also is sealed. The holding pen remains sealed until each horse has been examined by an inspector after unloading.

This type of inspection does not happen with every truckload, but the shippers never know when an inspection might be made.

Canadian regulations also stipulate that stallions can’t be hauled in the same compartment as other horses, and that if any horse has shoes on the rear feet, the shoes must be removed before the horse is loaded.

At The Feed Lot

During this writer’s visit to the feed lot in Shelby, five semis were lined up to transport horses from the feed lot to Fort Macleod. Some would go immediately to slaughter, while others would be placed on a short-term fattening program at the feed lot located on the same grounds as the slaughter plant. The feed lot in Shelby was nearly at its capacity of 2,000 horses, and more were scheduled to arrive. That meant that space had to be made available.

The sorting concentrated, first, on selecting the horses which were ready or nearly ready for slaughter. Once these horses were segregated, they were sorted again, this time for order of loading. The shortest horses went into the compartments with the least head room, the tallest into compartments with the most head room. Whether each horse had the required eight inches of distance between withers and roof was difficult for a casual visitor to assess, but all of them, including some Belgian draft horses, appeared able to stand without their heads touching the roof of the compartment.

During the sorting process, two of the horses suffered gashed shoulders. They were tagged for immediate slaughter. The next morning, they were observed at Fort Macleod in the holding pen for horses about to be slaughtered.

Each of the horses transported that day was checked by a Montana brand inspector before being loaded.

To facilitate recordkeeping, each horse at a Bouvray feed lot has a number branded on its hip. That allows each animal to be tracked by computer all the way from purchase to slaughter.

Most of the horses arriving at the Bouvray plant or its feed lots and at other slaughter facilities in this country and Canada are purchased by independent buyers across the country. The basic approach involves the plant representative informing the buyer what will be paid for certain types of horses. The buyer then buys these horses at public auction (some privately), with his profit coming from the difference between his purchasing price and what he receives from the slaughter facility. If he buys a horse for $500 and the plant is paying $600 for that type of horse, his markup margin is $100, less transportation costs.

One of the buyers for the Bouvray plant is Charlie Needham of Riverton, Wyo. Needham is a retired Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association bull rider who competed at the National Finals Rodeo several times. Today, he is a cattle rancher who supplements that income by buying horses for slaughter and selling them to the Bouvray plant. He will send between 300 and 500 horses to the plant annually.

Most of the horses he buys are delivered to him. When horses are delivered to him, the seller has the choice of weighing the horse at a public scale before delivering it, or having Needham guess the weight and pay by the pound accordingly. The ideal horse for slaughter would be a nicely fleshed saddle horse weighing in at about 1,200 pounds. Lighter horses bring less money, as do draft horses. Horses which weigh 600 pounds or less are not desired by the slaughter plants because of poor carcass yield.

On the other end of the scale, most plants discourage the purchase of draft horses. About the only market for the meat from draft horses is Japan, and the Japanese want the animals to be very fat when slaughtered so that the meat is marbled.

Needham will travel to public auctions in the area and purchase horses, but he rarely goes more than 120 miles from home. Horses which are purchased at auctions are brought to his place and are turned out to pasture until he has a load.

For Needham, a load in a double-deck trailer is 38 head. The truck could hold more, but he chooses to load light instead of heavy to make certain that the horses arrive at Shelby or the Fort Macleod plant in good condition.

In the five years that he has been purchasing horses and sending them to the Bouvray plant, he says, only one has arrived there in an injured state that caused it to be rejected. The trucking company that transports horses from his Wyoming ranch northward specializes in hauling horses, he says, and has had their semitrailers built for that purpose. The trailers have three more inches of head room on both the lower and upper decks than do trucks normally used for hauling other livestock.

This year Needham is seeking to expand his operation. His goal this summer was to buy horses which needed some weight gain before being ready for slaughter. He has extensive pasture land and augments it by leasing alfalfa stubble. His plan was to purchase 100 head and graze them on available grass until late October, then send them to the feed lot in Shelby or to the plant in Fort Macleod.

Needham, and others like him, represent the positive side of the horse buyer-trader picture. On the negative side are the buyers who travel from sale to sale around the country, hauling horses from area to area until they have a load.

Whether operating positively or negatively, it is not a ‘big money’ business. Needham tries to make a minimum profit of between $35 and $50 per head; more if he can. This means, he says, that economics would force him to take excellent care of the horses at his ranch and ensure that they are transported safely to their destination even if his own humanitarian concerns weren’t the motivation. A horse which he might have purchased for $600 to $700 that was refused at the delivery point would make a huge dent in his profit for that load.

Horses which are kept at Bouvray Exports feed lots in Shelby and Alberta are fed free choice a mixture of oats and ground hay. There are some colic problems with new arrivals, especially those that are undernourished, says Howie Solberg, who, along with his wife, Melanie, is in charge of the Shelby feed lot. However, once the horses become acclimated, there are few health problems, he said.

On average, the horses will remain on feed at one of the feed lots for 100 to 120 days before being sent to slaughter. Much, of course, depends on their condition when they arrive. Some horses are in good condition and can go immediately to slaughter, while others are thin and need 120 days of feeding.

The Wrong One?

This raises another point. Are good-quality horses which are fit for riding or other pursuits winding up on European dinner tables?

Kropius says no. ‘Ninety-nine percent of the horses we slaughter have lost their value for one reason or another.’

Needham agrees: ‘People say I must be able to ‘scalp’ a lot of horses out of the slaughter pen and resell them as saddle horses. That isn’t true. I’m lucky if I find 10 in 500 that I can sell for something else.’

However, it does happen. When it does, the ‘Needhams’ of the horse buying and trading world attempt to capitalize. After all, a good saddle horse is worth much more than 45 or 50 cents per pound.

Needham tells one such story: ‘A rancher brought me this 16-year-old gelding that had been out on the range all winter and was pretty thin. This guy sells all horses that he thinks are hard keepers. That’s what he thought this gelding was—a hard keeper. This old horse was well-broke. I knew a person who was looking for a well-broke, gentle gelding, so I called him. I told him to take the horse home and try him. If he liked him, he could buy him; if he didn’t, I would put him on the next load out. Well, when I called him back, he was all excited about the horse and said he would buy him.’

For the most part, however, the horses which arrive at Needham’s ranch or at the slaughter plants don’t fit into that category. Some have leg problems that don’t allow them to perform. Others have personality problems that make riding them dangerous. Some have reached maturity and never have been trained. Others have been the product of neglect, with untrimmed feet and showing signs of malnourishment. Some are old. The list goes on.

The Alternative?

Another question presents itself. If there were no slaughter market, what would happen to these horses?

Kropius tells this illustrative story. One morning as he was helping to sort horses for that day’s slaughter. He noticed that a lady was observing the activity from her car. When the sorting was completed, she approached him.

‘Are you going to kill all of those beautiful horses today?’ she asked.

Kropius replied that every horse sorted was going to slaughter that day.

At that point, she upbraided him severely, using foul language in the process.

‘I waited until she was finished,’ he said, ‘then I said to her, ‘Ma’am I’m the one responsible for purchasing these horses. I have probably paid an average of $375 each for them, not counting feed and transportation. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll eat the feed and transportation costs if you will give me $375 apiece for these horses. They’ll be yours, but you’ll have to find a place for them right away, because we won’t be able to keep them here.’

‘She became even more indignant and said that was unfair because she didn’t have a place for them.

‘I told her that was the whole point. There was no where else for these horses to go. At least here, they were going to be put down humanely instead of starving to death somewhere.’

U.S. Slaughter

There are differences between the approach in the United States and that taken by Bouvray Exports. The prime difference is that the slaughter plants in the U.S. do not depend on feed lots. The high price of feed makes that approach unfeasible, the managers say. The Canadians, they claim, benefit from cheaper grain and hay, partially as the result of surplus feed made available through government subsidies.

The only feed lot in the United States is operated by Beltex and is located at Morton, Texas, some three hours from Fort Worth by car or truck. Jim Weems, who is the unofficial spokesperson for three of the U.S. slaughter plants (excluding Illinois), operates the feed lot and oversees a facility that is both a holding area and a feed lot and that slaughters exotic animals such as wild boar and ostriches .

Although the facility is situated on more acres than appear to be involved in the Shelby feed lot, which can accommodate 2,000 horses, Texas agricultural regulations limit the number of horses in the Morton feed lot to 750. In contrast, if cattle were being fed there, the limit would be 2,000.

What this means is that all three U.S. plants, particularly the two without feed lots, are dependent on a steady influx of horses from buyers around the country. For the most part, plant operators are prepared to keep horses in holding pens for two or three days before sending them to slaughter, but are not set up for long-term feeding and care.

The plant operators are involved in a constant juggling act. When there is a heavy influx, they slaughter more. When there is a dearth of horses in the holding pens, production schedules are cut back.

To some degree, they try to manage supply and demand by price. When there is a scarcity, prices go up. When they are being inundated, the price per pound for live horses drops dramatically.

Each plant has its own network of buyers and through constant contact, the buyers know what the plant’s needs might be and seek to fill the order.

The heaviest influx of the year occurs in October, plant officials say. It is the time of the year when the riding season is over in many parts of the country. At that point, many owners take inventory and decide which horses merit being fed through the winter for another year of use and which ones should be culled and sent to slaughter because of one problem or another.

The lightest months are January and February. Because of the scarcity, it is during these winter months that prices sometimes reach their zenith.

Much, of course, also depends on European demand. If demand in the marketplace is down, prices will reflect it. If demand is up, prices will reflect that, too. The heaviest demand, generally speaking, is during the cold weather months in Europe.

All of the U.S. and Canadian plants deal with European wholesalers who, in turn, pass the product on to retailers in their respective areas. Unlike beef, horse meat does not go through a sustained aging process after the animal has been slaughtered.

The reason is basic, says Geert Dewulf, a young Belgian who speaks five languages and manages the Dallas Crown plant at Kaufman, Texas. Horse meat, in addition to being almost devoid of fat and very low in cholesterol, is high in iron. As a result, if a carcass is refrigerated for a long period of time, it will turn black. However, if it is cut up and vacuum packed and refrigerated or frozen, that will not occur.

All of the slaughter plants prepare packaged cuts to order as well as ship carcasses. In many cases, when the meat leaves the slaughter plant, it is cut and wrapped just the way it will appear in meat markets. The cuts from horses, incidentally, are the same as for beef. There are steaks, roasts, hamburger, etc. However, there is one key difference as to tenderness of meat. With beef, the older the cow, steer, or bull, the tougher the cut. With horses, it is the reverse. The older the animal, the more tender the meat.

The reason, says Weems, is that as horses age, muscle fibers break down, rendering the meat more tender. The toughest cuts, he says, are from draft horses, no matter what the age. The meat is coarse and quite tough unless the horse has been on the feed lot for a sustained period and has become very fat.

There are country-by-country differences in demand for certain types and ages of horses, and this also keeps the U.S. plants busy in an effort to fill specific demands. For Bouvray Exports, it is easier. If there is a sudden demand for a certain type of meat, the company usually can fill the order with horses already in the feed lot system. Generally speaking, the U.S. plants have to hope that the right horses will arrive on a day-to-day basis.

Kropius gives this breakdown of demand for five of the countries that are prime outlets for horse meat:

  • Italy—Colts and yearlings up to 18 months of age.
  • France—Mature horses which are 10 to 12 years of age.
  • Switzerland—Horses that are two to three years of age.
  • Japan—Overweight draft horses.
  • Belgium—Horses of any age and type, other than draft, where the meat is of excellent quality.

Some countries also have specific requirements. All horse meat going to Sweden and Finland, says Mathew Litt, chief executive officer for the Central Nebraska Packing plant, must be certified salmonella-free. The testing is done in the plant’s laboratory.

Central Nebraska Packing will slaughter between 350 and 400 horses per week. The holding area is a huge old barn that once was used by the railroad to offload, water, feed, and to rest animals being transported across the country by rail. It has a capacity of about 300 horses. The goal, says Litt, is to keep the horses in the holding area a very short time. The plant slaughters on Mondays and Wednesdays. Horses, for the most part, are trucked to the plant the afternoon and night before the slaughter day. About half will arrive in gooseneck trailers and half in double-decker semitrailers.

Each horse carcass, no matter where it is going, must be tested for trichinella, the parasite that causes trichinosis. The USDA does not require the test because there have been no reported cases of equine trichinosis in the United States. However, the European Union requires the test because some European horses, particularly those originating in Poland, are afflicted.

In addition, each plant must have its own designated HACCP agent. HACCP is the acronym for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points. The role of the HACCP agent is to make certain that all USDA rules and regulations are being adhered to throughout the entire operation. At one time this was handled by the USDA, but that agency has shifted the responsibility to the slaughter plant.

Because of the peculiar qualities of horse meat, such as the high amount of iron that causes carcasses to darken, there is a rapid movement of product. At Dallas Crown, for example, horses are slaughtered on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Horses slaughtered on Tuesday are Europe-bound by air on Thursday, and the carcasses of horses slaughtered on Thursday are flown overseas on Saturday. Dallas Crown will slaughter about 250 horses per week. It has a holding pen capacity of 400 head.

Dallas Crown, along with the other plants, has an additional outlet for a small percentage of its horse meat—food for exotic animals in zoos. The food for zoo animals must meet the same standards as that for human consumption. The USDA position is that any product leaving the plant must meet human consumption standards, even if some of it is designated for zoo animals.

The Parent Companies

There are five major companies that have cornered the slaughter horse market around the world. One is Bouvray Exports with its French connections. The other four have Belgian owners.

The parent company for Beltex is Multimeat, NV; Dallas Crown is owned by Chevideco, NV; and Central Nebraska Packing is owned by Equinox, NV. (NV in Europe is the equivalent of Inc. in the United States.) The company that operated the plant near DeKalb, Ill., also has Belgian owners.

The above companies also are the firms that operate horse slaughter plants in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina.

Observations And Conclusions

So what conclusions does this writer-visitor, himself a breeder of horses, conclude after traveling to three slaughter facilities in the United States and one in Canada?

Were the horses which were viewed in the feed lots and holding pens well cared for? >

The answer is yes. In all cases, the horses had feed in front of them and also had access to fresh water. At all of the plants, the horses ready for slaughter were housed in roofed pens.

Were there severely crippled and injured horses in the holding areas? >

The answer is no. Some horses were limping, suggesting the reason they had been sold for slaughter. However, there were no ghastly wounds or signs of sickness. As already mentioned, such horses would have been rejected by federal inspectors, both at the Canadian slaughter plants and their counterparts in the United States. There is another factor. All horse meat going to Europe must be free of hormones and drugs. Treating a horse with antibiotics to cure a malady is out of the question if the horse must go to slaughter a short time later. Thus healthy, wound-free horses are sought.

Were all of the horses in good physical condition? >

The answer is no. There was much more consistency at the Bouvray plant because the horses awaiting slaughter there had already been fattened at one of the feed lots. It appears that some of the owners who sell horses to slaughter might have run out of feed. When the horse has become thin from lack of food, it is finally sold.

Weems tells the story of a woman who brought a horse to the Morton, Texas, feed lot. The animal was very thin. ‘She told me that the horse was her husband’s and that when her husband died the horse quit eating. I bought the horse and turned it into the lot. I don’t think it raised its head from the feed bunk for two days. It was likely the first food in any significant amount the horse had had in weeks.’

Are horses stolen and sent to slaughter plants?

Not likely. While it does happen, there just isn’t enough money in it to make the risk worthwhile. Brand inspections also serve as a safeguard.

Are the horror stories true that horses killed in slaughter plants scream and thrash in agony on the kill room floor?

The answer is no. The slaughter plants are streamlined, efficient operations. Horses are moved from holding pens to the slaughter area. A door opens, and the horse steps inside a stall-like enclosure. Within a second or two either a dead-bolt device, mandated by USDA in this country, strikes the animal in the forehead, penetrating the brain, or, in the case of the Bouvray plants, a .22 caliber bullet. The horse is instantly dead, although some involuntary muscle activity and heartbeat (required for bleeding out of the carcass) can continue for several seconds. Somewhere between seven and 15 minutes later, depending on the plant, the carcass has been eviscerated, stripped of the hide, halved, and placed in the cooler. It is the same procedure that occurs at every beef, hog, and sheep slaughter facility.

Is hauling horses in double-decker semitrailers inhumane?

Tough question to answer. Yes, it can be if the horses aren’t sorted according to size and temperament. And, yes, it can be if the trailer is jammed to more than comfortable capacity or horses are fighting.

There is always another factor when horses are loaded onto a conveyance as a group, be it a gooseneck trailer behind a pickup truck or a double-decker trailer. Each group of horses has a pecking order, with one being dominant and the others taking their places in descending order of dominance. Add in the factor that some horses are nervous and flighty while others are phlegmatic by nature. There normally will be more shifting, twisting, and turning when horses are loaded on any type of trailer than would be the case with a load of steers. Cattle, hogs, and sheep might resist being loaded, but once on board, pretty much settle down and don’t move.

Is there need for a slaughter horse outlet?

Temple Grandin, PhD, of Colorado State University, who conducted USDA-sponsored research on horses going to slaughter, sums it up best:

‘Some people do not approve of the horse slaughter industry and they would like to shut it down. This would probably be very detrimental to horse welfare. The fates of many horses would be worse if the slaughter plants were shut down because more horses would probably go to Mexico, where their welfare is likely to be much worse. Humane slaughter procedures are not enforced in Mexico.

‘The incidence of horse neglect may increase because in many parts of the country owners would have to pay to have a euthanized horse taken to a rendering plant. Rendering plants are declining in numbers and the fee to pick up a horse carcass can vary from free to several hundred dollars. This depends on where the rendering plant is located. Disposal of horse carcasses on the farm or on one’s own property is often not an option. In some states, it is illegal to bury a dead horse on your property. In states where burial is legal, there are still problems with frozen ground in the wintertime, which makes burial impossible.

‘Other alternatives to slaughter, such as cremation, would be expensive. People who can afford cremation can choose it, but people who cannot afford it are more likely to sell their horses at an auction or to a horse dealer. If the horse is rideable, the dealer would probably sell it for riding but, if it is not rideable, then it is likely to be sold for slaughter. If horses have to be shipped to either Canada or Mexico, transport times will increase even further.’

Is there a dark side to the story?

Perhaps yes. The dark side involves the ‘underground’ network, although few concrete facts are available. Stories are told of crippled and ill horses being transported to plants in Mexico, where rules and regulations regarding quality are more lax. However, it should be noted that any plant that has European Union approval, no matter where it is located, must be under constant inspection and must adhere to all EU rules and regulations. For example, Multimeat, NV, operates an EU-approved plant in Mexico. Perhaps tighter border crossing security is necessary to halt the ‘underground’ shipments to non-approved plants.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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